This year Unit 18 will explore the future of consumerism and its’ impact on the built environment. As consumers we are becoming ever more reliant on unreliable products, and dependant on superfluous gadgets with an ever decreasing shelf-life. Buying the latest smartphone is the elixir of our 21st century virtual selves. As Gertrude Stein put it almost a century ago: ‘Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.’ But it doesn’t always come easy…
Whilst most of us no longer need to go to the trenches, we now have Black Fridays where we must don our uniforms, trample on people and punch aimlessly at the person in front of the queue in order to come home with the latest 55” television set. Last year on the 24th of November, the infamous Black Friday, customers spent over £5 billion on online shopping. No wonder, according to research, over 12% of Black Friday shoppers are supposedly under the influence. This is the age of extreme consumerism, where Americans have over 300,000 items in the average home. An average child will accumulate 238 toys by the time they are 10 years old but they will only play with about 12 of them.
To feed our insatiable appetite for shrink-wrapped burgers and fizzy drinks we produce about 300 million tons of plastic each year with a mere 10% of that being recycled. 7 million tonnes of this ends up in the sea, killing a million seabirds every year. Whilst consumer society has been stunningly effective in harming the environment, has it failed to provide us with a sense of fulfilment? Are we being hoodwinked into gorging on material things because we suffer from social, psychological, and spiritual hungers? We are targeted by 2000 commercial messages every day to ensure we spend more than eight years of our lives shopping, alongside spending, on average, about 8 years watching TV. Combined that makes up a quarter of our waking lives, unless we succumbed to all those tobacco adverts, in which in case it’s probably half. The question is, is it worth it?
Architecture is no saint here either; like casinos, shopping malls are intentionally designed to make people lose track of time, removing clocks and windows to prevent views to the outside world, genius, we are such advanced creatures! Just obscure the windows and fill the shelves with utterly useless stuff, although, it’s scientifically proven that we are more likely to buy a product from an emptier looking shelf. This is known as ‘social proofing’, where we are reassured by the fact that others have bought into the offer before us, likewise, we are reluctant to purchase from an untouched display. Shopping is in our DNA. The oldest customer service complaint was written on a clay cuneiform tablet in Mesopotamia 4000 years ago. A customer named Nanni complained that he was sold inferior copper ingots. We may no longer need those ingots but what would we do without those customer reviews, God forbid we bought the wrong hair dryer!
Shopping is a skill that we learn. It is a cognitive process requiring us to acquire, interpret and act on information from the store environment. As with all learnt skills our ability to shop efficiently improves with practice. At Boston University, students can sign up for ‘The Modern American Consumer’, which is a course on the history of shopping. At the University of Greenwich, Students can sign up for ‘Extreme Consumerism’, which is a course on the future of shopping and its’ impact on the built environment.
Sign up now!
****Image: Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent